After Super Tuesday, I pointed out that by remaining in the race after his dismal showing, Marco Rubio was making it materially more-likely that Donald Trump got the nomination. I think the results from Wisconsin yesterday substantially bear that out. Ted Cruz’s share of the state vote looks an awful lot like what the Cruz and Rubio combined votes would have looked like had Wisconsin voted on, say, March 5th. Had Rubio dropped out after Super Tuesday and endorsed Cruz, Cruz would likely have won Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri and North Carolina in addition to the states he actually won. That wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the delegate race, but it would have made a bigger difference in the popular vote totals, which could have relevance for arguments at the convention in the event that nobody gets a decisive plurality of delegates, much less a majority.
With that in mind, the state Cruz needs to focus on most aggressively now is Pennsylvania. There are very few delegates actually in play in Pennsylvania, because the overwhelming majority elected out of the state will be unbound. But it’s a very populous state, so a strong win there could run up Cruz’s popular vote total, and it’s a Northeastern state, a region where Cruz has so far done poorly. For both reasons, it’s a very valuable prize for the Cruz campaign. And, unlike New York, where Trump has polled above 50% in every poll since the beginning of March, Pennsylvania has never been a particularly strong state for Trump, nor is it necessarily a terrible state for the very conservative Cruz – this is the state that elected Rick Santorum and Pat Toomey to the Senate, after all. Maryland is another state that may not be so terrible for Cruz if he can truly consolidate the Rubio vote with his own slice of the anti-establishment majority. And it’s winner-take-all. If Cruz wins both Maryland and Pennsylvania, then there is still a chance for him to prevail in Cleveland.
The interesting question is how Kasich plays into this. Kasich did very poorly in Wisconsin – poorly enough that one really must question what his objective in running is. Unlike Rubio, whose continued presence in the race after Super Tuesday clearly benefitted Trump, Kasich might well be hurting Trump by staying in; Trump won moderates in Wisconsin, and that’s Kasich’s brand. But that will likely cease to be true after April. Winner-take-all Indiana is a must-win state for Ted Cruz, and it’s a conservative state. But it’s also a state that borders Ohio, as well as an open primary. If Kasich is still in, he could well throw the state to Trump. If he dropped out after losing all the Northeast contests on April 26th, and endorsed Cruz, he could put Cruz over the top. (That is, assuming all the Kasich supporters haven’t already voted early by that time.)
And as we look further down the calendar, Cruz is going to need decisive, lopsided wins in proportional Oregon and Washington, as well as in huge California, where most delegates are selected at the district level, to snatch the nomination from Trump, both because he’ll need every delegate he can get and because he’ll need to get outright popular vote majorities to make the claim that he’s the rightful nominee. Kasich’s moderate voters are a poor fit for the Cruz campaign. I’m pretty sure Cruz needs to be one-on-one with Trump well before Cleveland to achieve victory there.
It is vanishingly unlikely that the convention in Cleveland will nominate John Kasich no matter what happens from here on out. It’s very hard for me to believe that Kasich doesn’t actually know that. Maybe he’s running for Vice President, in which case the rational thing for him to do is run up his delegate count as high as he can and sell it to the highest bidder – whether Trump, Cruz or the party leaders looking for a white knight to save the party from both. In any event, we’ll know whether Kasich really is a party man, being strategic in the effort to stop Trump, or whether he’s just being stubborn, by what he does at the end of the month. I’m betting he’s just being stubborn.